Of course I was never really going to stay away forever from my once-beloved Atlantic. It’s true that I cancelled my subscription over a certain brain-dead phrase being allowed to stand in the place of critical thought, but that hardly blinds me to the wealth of work and thought that still goes into every issue. I can’t bring myself to subscribe again (that ‘wtf’ phrase had to go through editors! And worse, it had to strike the writer as not only cogent but worthy of the Atlantic! It still rankles), but reading is another thing. Shyly, almost self-protectively, I skipped straight to the back of the latest issue, to the Books section presided over by Benjamin Schwarz, where both he and his hand-picked freelancers will be holding court in a way that might fascinate or frustrate me but will never simply annoy me. Or almost never.
Straight to Schwarz himself, for instance, who this time around reviews Henry Kamen’s new history of the Escorial, the labyrinthine Spanish fortress that was headquarters to, among others, King Philip II of Spain. Kamen has spent the better part of a lifetime studying the history of Spain, so it’s understandable the Escorial would loom in the background of his thoughts and eventually prompt a book of its own, but Schwarz puckishly warns: “… ultimately artistic wonders of the world are too important to be left to the historians.” Deep research or not, all books are held accountable on this particular threshing floor, and Schwarz is one of those few remaining omni-competent reviewers who can take a book like this one and find plenty in it that’s comment-worthy, including shortcomings that would have eluded a lesser critic:
Kamen overstates and under-argues his case. Moreover, he fails to illuminate with precision – or even to probe – the degree to which the man who commissioned the building determined its form and strange beauty, rather than the architects, Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, who actually designed and built it. In this way, Kamen’s characterization throughout the book of Philip as the Escorial’s “creator” is wrongheaded, or at the very least unearned.
And as if to flaunt that omni-competence, Schwarz rounds off his column-space with an equally-good review of Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s new history of …Wonder Bread. And despite the inherent triviality of the subject, the review is interesting – not just because Bobrow-Strain has managed to tease an actual story out of his archival rooting but because Schwarz has sensed that story in a book I would have passed by with hardly a second glance.
And then he steps aside for the showpiece of the issue: Caitlin Flanagan’s essay “Jackie and the Girls,” which purports to tell the story behind some of those recent Jacqueline Kennedy “historic conversations” with Arthur Schlesinger that were briefly bestsellers last season. Flanagan joins the Schlesinger interviews with Mimi Alford’s recent JFK tell-all Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, but as usual in the excellent Flanagan’s case, her essay is also powerfully personal. She writes movingly about having been under the spell of the iconic Kennedy photographs her entire life, especially the photos showing JFK as a doting father to his two small children, Caroline and John – and especially because of the shearing contradiction those photos pose to the endless stream of allegations that JFK was compulsively, even morbidly adulterous all through his married life. Flanagan calls any resistance to that ever-growing legend of infidelity “a loser’s game” – and indeed, it never seems to cross her mind that there’s even a remote possibility that, for instance, Alford is simply lying about what happened between her and the President.
The essay is a masterpiece, full of Flanagan’s sharp wit (at one point she describes two other alleged mistresses “returning to their desks with wet hair so they could go on with their important work of autographing his photographs and wondering how to type”) and carefully-demarcated vulnerabilities. She wants to believe in President Kennedy, she implies, but these (to use a pungent term from the Clinton administration) “bimbo eruptions” keep getting in the way. The result is a piece with a curiously bitter after-taste … a piece almost entirely stripped of the background kindness that usually marks this author’s prose. Jackie Kennedy herself is certainly done few favors:
She was a shopaholic who loved to party and ride horses and vacation in the most happening ports of call, to settle her boyish, perfectly dressed frame into well-upholstered chairs with her pack of Salems and her glass of champagne and to exercise her savage gifts for mimicry and comic malice.
To put it mildly, nobody who ever actually knew the woman would recognize much of her in this shrill caricature, and she gets off easy compared to her husband. It’s an old reflex for me to be Kennedy-wary when thumbing through the pages of The Atlantic; the late (and, I admit, very much missed) Christopher Hitchens couldn’t come near the subject of JFK without lashing out – often in startlingly and uncharacteristically uninformed ways (long-time Stevereads readers will recall the time I myself publicly took him to task for one such attack, in a letter The Atlantic printed but to which he didn’t – couldn’t? – respond). Flanagan of course mentions Hitchens, while in the sad, eerie process of channelling him:
As for John Kennedy – what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them (“That administration,” said LBJ … the mists of Camelot beginning to clear, “had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.”) He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his “second Cuba” (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: “Only the most servile masochist … can congratulate [Kennedy] on the ‘coolness’ with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making”), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him.
That’s the old Hitchens mania, in full blossom for post-Hitchens readers (and on this subject Schwarz is little better, referring to JFK last month with tossed-off slurs like “drugged up” and “mobbed up”), a complex and in many ways superb President drawn among these heartless hinds and rendered into a bumbling, cartoon Priapus. Flanagan can write about those famous Kennedy photographs “These pictures represent the pure distillation of what the word father means in the deepest imagination of many people, even (especially) those who have never lived with or even known their own,” but she’s not willing to connect that imaginative stirring either with the lurid fantasies of people like Mimi Alford (he called her on the phone all the time! He asked her how her classes were coming along! What her homework was like!) or with her own vicious knee-jerk reaction (or Hitchens’) to the man’s life and legacy. Instead, we get this nonsense about JFK ‘starting’ the Vietnam War or somehow causing the Cuban Missile Crisis (not to mention sleeping with – how many women is it now, in the White House? Two hundred? Two thousand? Two hundred thousand?) – for all the world as though history were just a football you could toss around at Hyannisport.
As I’ve mentioned before, however, it’s the mark of a first-rate critic that they can keep you happily reading even while writing things you don’t agree with at all. The book-catalogues of every season are crammed to their indexes with serious, meaty works I’d prefer Benjamin Schwarz review in The Atlantic instead an interesting but necessarily featherweight thing like a new book on Wonder Bread, and yet he made it worth my while to read the review (and with a cash-bulging envelope – and perhaps a beagle puppy – he might convince me to read the book). Likewise for Flanagan, who’s fascinating despite her flailing this time out.
The other glimmer of good news in this issue? In Jeffrey Goldberg’s doltish “What’s Your Problem?” back-page feature, there’s just the slightest hint that the feature itself might finally be closing up shop. If this turns out to be true, let’s hope The Atlantic decides to replace it with content. You can never have enough content in The Atlantic – a view, coincidentally, shared by a certain maligned Commander-in-Chief, who was an avid reader of the magazine – when he wasn’t rogering Marlene Dietrich atop the Resolute desk in full view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that is.
My vote: give the extra page to Schwarz and his crew: you can be sure they won’t waste an inch of it.